Blest Be the Tie That Binds
You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay
Then you may learn to love another
While I am sleeping in my grave
- From A Man of Constant Sorrow, traditional American folk song
“That’s far enough. Stop right there.”
Even though Joel was expecting it, the voice took him by surprise. The lookout was camouflaged, so well-hidden that even though Joel had been looking for signs of people, he’d still missed the blind until he was almost right on top of it.
Joel held up his hands and waited until two figures melted out of the trees and stood on the road facing him, a woman and a man, both armed with hunting rifles. Joel didn’t make any sudden moves.
“Y’all part of the group set up in the Chisos basin?” He kept his hands above his head.
The two exchanged a look, and the woman said, “Who wants to know?”
“Name’s Joel. Ellie sent me here.” With a nasty lurch, Joel realized that not only did he not know Ellie’s last name, he also had no idea what her history with these people might be, or even if she knew them personally. For all he knew, she’d only heard of this group in passing. And if they were so fucking friendly, why was Ellie living a hundred and fifty miles away?
He needn’t have worried. At Ellie’s name, the woman’s rifle dipped down and a grin broke across her face. “You’ve seen Ellie?”
“Yes, ma’am. If you’ll let me get somethin’ out of my pocket?” This last appeal was to her companion, a burly man who was still holding his rifle on Joel a tad more aggressively than the situation warranted.
The big man nodded once, and growled, “No sudden moves.”
Joel nodded and moved his right hand slowly to his pocket to dig out Ellie’s folded note, which he held out toward the woman.
She started toward him, but the man held her back. “You know the rules, Olivia. Five-foot distance until after quarantine.” To Joel, he said, “Put it on the ground and back away…”
“...five feet,” Joel finished. “Yeah, I got it.” He did as the man asked. When he was a safe distance from the paper, the man let his companion start forward.
“For fuck’s sake, Casey,” she muttered. “You know as well as I do that CBI isn’t communicable by touch.”
The big man shrugged. “I didn’t make the rules, Liv. I just make sure everyone follows them.”
She scooped the note up off the ground and read it, and said, “It’s from Ellie. Says we could use him, Casey.” She looked at Joel. “What kind of skills do you have, Joel? Why did Ellie send you to us?”
“I’m a decent hunter. I’m good with my hands. And I can hold my own against infected. As for why she sent me here…” Joel spread his hands in front of him. “...I lived with her for a couple months and she never mentioned this place until she gave me that note. So I got no notion.”
Casey finally lowered his rifle. “You lived with Ellie for a couple months? Seriously? Alone? Did she suddenly develop a personality that wasn’t unbearably bitchy?”
“Casey…” Liv rolled her eyes, and then said to Joel, “They didn’t get along.”
“Understatement of the fucking century,” Casey grumbled.
Joel said, “We got on all right.” Better than all right, he thought.
“Yeah? So why’d she send you packing?”
Joel looked Casey in the eyes, keeping his face blank and his voice even. “I guess she just got tired of me.”
Casey guffawed and rested his rifle over his shoulder. “Yeah, sounds like Ellie, all right.”
Olivia looked worried. “Joel, did Ellie tell you she’s...about her...condition?”
“That she’s infected, but miraculously immune to CBI? Yeah,” Joel said. “We had that discussion.”
She smiled, relief on her face. “Okay, then. And you’re fine. Of course you’re fine, you had to have walked here, you’d have turned by now if she’d infected you. I told her she could live around other people, as long as she was careful…” She shook her head. “But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hi. I’m Olivia Brenham, and the big guy is Bill Casey. Welcome to the Chisos Basin.”
"I'm sorry about the quarantine thing," Olivia said. They had left Casey down at the lookout blind and gone on up the road together, Joel walking five feet in front of her. "It applies to everyone who leaves the basin, too."
"You have problems with people gettin' bit and not tellin' anyone?" he asked.
"Only once." The tone of her voice made him stop and turn around to look at her, but her face was distant and closed.
Joel started walking again. “Once is usually enough.”
She didn’t answer him.
The road crested the ridge and Joel whistled as the whole basin spread out before him. “I can see why you chose this place.” The little green valley was like an inverted cup pushed into the top of the mountain, protected on all sides by forbidding rock faces, except for where the mountain ridge dipped down into a notched V on the far side of the valley. A few low buildings clustered together near where the road ran into the basin and Joel could see green rows of regular plantings in raised beds and in a couple of flat patches of cleared ground.
“There it is,” Olivia said. “Home sweet home. We use the visitor center as our canteen and meeting space, and there are seventy-two rooms between the hotel, the motel, and the cottages. We’ve only got thirty-five people right now, so once you’re out of quarantine you should be able to take your pick of housing.”
“That’s it? You’re just gonna bring me in? No talking to the community first?” Even when he’d been a hunter, they hadn’t just welcomed every random stranger who wanted to join their group. More people always meant more mouths to feed, and that sometimes meant the people already in the group had to make do with less.
“Oh, there’ll be a meeting. And Esteban—he’s our leader, at least nominally—will want to talk to you. But if Ellie sent you here, you’ve got my vote. How...how is she?”
Joel studied his companion. She was older than him, maybe in her mid-forties, with coffee-colored skin and curly brown hair that was just starting to go gray. Her eyes were filled with an urgent concern that made Joel tell the truth. “She’s lonely. I think that’s why she let me stay with her so long.”
Olivia turned away, but not before he saw her eyes fill with tears. “I should get you to one of the quarantine rooms. It’s only three days, and we’ll feed you. You’ll have to leave your weapons and your pack outside.” Her voice was carefully controlled.
“Sounds fair.” Joel said, and started walking again.
They were almost to the first cluster of buildings, and approaching a knot of other people when Joel heard the high-pitched scream. He was reaching for his pistol when he realized that none of the others were reacting at all, but he was still surprised when two small girls came barreling around the corner of the building, shrieking with laughter, and almost ran right into him.
The littler one, all curly golden hair and flailing brown limbs, shouted, “Mama!” and ran full-tilt into Olivia’s legs, throwing her arms around the woman’s waist.
“Hey there, peanut!” Olivia hugged her. “Now’s not a great time. I’m taking this guy,” she gestured to Joel, “to quarantine. His name is Joel, and he knows your auntie Ellie. Joel, this is Lucy, my daughter.”
The little girl looked at him with wide green eyes and shyly hid herself behind Olivia’s legs. Joel’s heart was pounding in his chest as he fought back rising panic. Kids. Ellie hadn’t said there would be kids here. How could he keep his memories of Sarah safely contained, if he had to see little kids every day?
As the silence stretched on, Olivia looked sharply at him, then said, “Okay, Luce, go play. I’ll see you when I get home.” After the girls had gone, she said, “You okay?”
When Sarah was that age I was still trying to get her to stop sucking her thumb. “Fine,” he said remotely, still fighting to control the rush of memories that were threatening to break free.
She looked at him for a long moment, and finally nodded. “Whatever. Here, that first room is free.” She pointed up the steps of a two-story building that looked like a motel. “Leave your stuff by the door, I promise I’ll keep it safe for you. The doctor will be down to examine you in a little bit. And Esteban will probably come by tonight. There are some books in there if you get too bored.”
As Joel let himself into the motel room and listened as Olivia locked the door behind him, he hoped he hadn’t made a huge mistake coming here. He stretched out on the sagging mattress of the rickety bed and stared at the ceiling, his arms behind his head. Nothing to do now but wait.
A few hours later, there was a knock, and Olivia’s voice called out, “Joel? You turned yet?”
He sat up, smiling wryly, and said, “No. Still here.”
The door opened to reveal Olivia standing next to a slight Latino. She was carrying a black medical bag.
“Joel, right?” the man said. At Joel’s nod, he held out his hand. “Esteban. Welcome. I thought we could talk while Dr. Brenham examined you, kill two birds with one stone.”
Joel shook Esteban’s hand, and raised his eyebrows at Olivia. “Doctor Brenham?”
She smiled and gave a little shrug. “We all wear a lot of hats here. I’m just going to give you a routine physical, and check you over for bites. If you’ll take your shirt off, I can get started.”
“You ain’t gonna buy me dinner first?” Joel unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off his shoulders.
Olivia smirked and looked at Esteban. “Oh, he’s got a sense of humor. I told you you’d like him.” She pulled a blood pressure cuff out of her bag and fitted it to Joel’s arm, then hooked a stethoscope into her ears and slipped the diaphragm under the cuff.
Esteban leaned back against the wall and said, “So, Joel, you’ve already got Ellie’s recommendation, which in my book is a plus. She was a valuable member of the community while she was here, even with her...condition. And you’ve made it this long after the outbreak, which means you’re a survivor. We’re always willing to welcome good people.”
As the blood pressure cuff tightened around his arm, Joel hesitated, thinking of the shit he and Tommy had done as hunters, then said, “I don’t know I’m exactly good people.”
Esteban glanced at Olivia, who gave him a small nod, still listening through the stethoscope.
“I appreciate your telling the truth. I don’t give a shit about your past, we’ve all had to do things we’d rather not have done to make it here, but as long as you understand that here in our community we don’t tolerate violence against each other, or lying, I think you’ll get along fine here.”
Joel nodded. “I can live with that. How does the division of labor work here?”
Olivia stowed the blood pressure cuff back in her black bag and moved behind Joel, saying, “I’m going to listen to your lungs.” The stethoscope was cold against his back. “Deep breath. And another.”
Esteban answered Joel, “We rotate everyone around, so nobody gets stuck doing something they don’t like for too long. Farming, hunting, guard duty, kitchen duty, maintenance, childcare. If you’ve got any special skills we should consider, let me know.”
“I’m a fair hunter, and I worked construction, doin’ mostly carpentry, before. I...I’d rather not work around kids, if that’s all right,” Joel said.
Esteban opened his mouth to respond, but Olivia interrupted him, saying, “Reduced lung capacity, Esteban.”
He snapped his mouth shut and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You maybe inhale some spores, Joel?”
“What? No!” Joel said. “There was this blue shit in Alpine…”
“Look at his nailbeds, Esteban,” Olivia said.
Joel held his hands up. For the first time, he noticed that his nailbeds had a distinct blue tint. “What the fuck?”
Esteban laughed. “Oh, you rode the Blue Loco! I thought we marked all the buildings that were contaminated.”
“Yeah, well you missed the back doors,” Joel said.
“Don’t worry, Joel. We got maybe fifteen people here been exposed to Blue Loco over the years. None of ‘em died from it, but they tell me it’s one hell of a ride.” Esteban laughed again.
Joel grimaced. “What the hell is it?”
“Who the fuck knows, man? The government did some crazy shit trying to contain the CBI, and nothing even slowed it down. Whatever that shit is, I’d stay away from it in the future. Next time we send a team up to scavenge in Alpine, you can show us which back doors to mark…” Esteban broke off at the sound of an air horn, three long blasts, then a pause, and then three more. He swore. “Fuck.”
Olivia stood up, her eyes wide with alarm. “That’s the guard post. Casey’s still down there by himself.”
“What’s going on?” Joel asked.
“Infected. Every so often a group makes its way up here from Terlingua. Guess we’ll continue this later.”
“I can help,” Joel said, slipping his shirt back on and buttoning it up.
Esteban looked him up and down, then said, “Yeah, all right. You gotta be in quarantine anyway. Grab whatever gear you need and let’s go.”
Joel only stopped long enough to pick up his shotgun, a Remington 870, from outside the door and fill his pockets with with the last of his shells, and then he hurried after Esteban in the direction of the road.
The three of them were joined by a group of four or five more people running for the sound of the air horn, but Esteban waved them off. “Simon, come with us. The rest of you, get everyone else inside!”
As they crested the hill, they saw Casey scrabbling for purchase in a pine tree, a group of infected fighting and pushing each other to get to the trunk. Casey yelped as a tall runner caught hold of his dangling foot and almost wrenched him out of the tree. Fuck, there were a lot of them. Ten, at a glance, six runners and four of those fucking creepy clicker things.
"These ain't very good odds, Esteban," Joel said. "Maybe we should get a few more people..."
"No time for that. God damn it. Biggest group we've had in a long time." Esteban cursed and turned to the group. “All right, no Molotovs. We can’t risk starting a forest fire. We’ll draw their attention and just gun them down when they rush us. Everybody ready?”
Joel gripped the stock of his shotgun and patted his pocket to check that the spare shells were there, then gave Esteban a terse nod.
They fanned out across the road, and then Esteban shouted, “Hey, assholes!”
The infected around the tree turned en masse. The runners came at them all at once, the clickers trailing behind with their jerky, unbalanced gait. Joel unloaded a shot into one runner’s chest while Esteban fired a spray of bullets from his AR-15, taking down two more. Olivia was standing back, coolly lining up shots at the back of the pack with her hunting rifle. Simon had a pistol, but he was nervous and his shots were going wide. One runner took a pistol slug in its shoulder, but that barely slowed it down. Joel pumped the shotgun, ejecting the spent shell and chambering a new one. He shot another runner in the head, not even flinching as the thing’s skull dissolved into a spray of red gore. A third runner got close, but went down with a quickly aimed shot to the leg; at this range the buckshot was traveling fast enough to shred its leg and probably break the bone too. Olivia shifted her aim to take down a runner that had gotten too close and was now grappling with Simon.
The clickers were getting closer, but when Joel unloaded a shell at the nearest one, the shot barely fazed the thing. He swore. He'd timed it wrong. It was still too far away for the shot to penetrate the fucking fungal plates, that shit was better than armor. Only one shell left in the shotgun, and he'd better make it count. Olivia was swearing a blue streak as she fumbled while reloading her rifle, dropping a handful of bullets on the cracked asphalt. Joel stepped in front of her as the clicker he’d shot made a dash at them, and it was almost on top of him when he finally got the end of the shotgun lined up and pulled the trigger, knocking it onto its back as pieces of bone and fungal pads exploded all over him. A second clicker was right behind the first one, though, and he was too slow and out of ammo.
Its gnarled hands closed like vises on his shoulders, painfully digging into his flesh, while its horrifically split face gaped wide, jagged teeth dripping thick saliva on his cheek as it reared back to bite him. Joel pushed ineffectively against its chest, but it was like pushing back against a tree, albeit one that was writhing and bucking under its bark. Joel fought back desperately, with all of his strength, but he could tell it wouldn’t be enough, and as the awful teeth started their descent toward his blood-spattered neck, he experienced a moment of total calm and clarity.
He could finally stop fighting.
He didn’t stop struggling, but that thought somehow made his imminent demise easier to bear. At the last second he closed his eyes.
He heard the clicker’s teeth snap on thin air, and then heard its squeal of rage and pain as it let go of his shoulders and fell heavily against him, shaking in its death throes. When Joel looked down, there was a fixed-blade hunting knife buried in the base of the thing’s skull. He looked around, bewildered.
Olivia was standing over the dead clicker, shaking like a leaf. All of the infected were dead, and the four of them were still standing. Casey was sliding down from the tree. As Olivia leaned down to retrieve her knife from the clicker, Joel realized that Esteban was asking him a question.
“What?” Joel felt dazed.
“I said, were you bitten? Or scratched?”
Joel shook his head, and then ran shaking fingers over his neck and arms. “No. I don’t think so. Do you see anything?”
Esteban said, “I’ll check you, you check me.” He turned to Simon and Olivia. “You guys do the same.”
Casey had ambled up to meet them. “What about me?”
Esteban shot him a sly smile. “Oh, I get to check you out, big guy.”
The flirtation broke the tension they all felt, and they all laughed, except Simon. He was standing apart from them, his left hand curled into a fist. The nailbeds of his fingernails, Joel noticed, were blue, like his own. He must have been one of the people Esteban had mentioned, who’d also been exposed to that blue crap in Alpine at some point. And then he noticed the blood dripping from Simon’s closed fist.
Olivia saw it the same time he did, and gasped, “Simon.”
Simon opened his fist. Blood flowed sluggishly from the wound on his index finger and palm, a wound that was unmistakably a bite.
“Oh, fuck,” Casey said.
Esteban took Simon’s pistol from his unresisting right hand, and said, “I’m sorry, Simon. I’ll make sure Abby and Jean are taken care of.” Simon nodded.
And then, before anyone could say anything else, Esteban pointed the pistol at Simon’s head and pulled the trigger.
“Fuck!” Joel’s mouth hung open in shock.
Esteban turned to him. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for infected. That’s the price of admission.”
Joel snapped his mouth shut. The same thing used to happen when members of his hunter crew got bitten, he just wasn’t expecting it in a group that seemed so much more...civilized. He nodded to Esteban, not trusting his own voice.
“Come on,” Esteban said. “We all need to get into quarantine. I’ll send a cleanup crew down here for the bodies.”
By the time Joel got out of quarantine, the word had spread how he’d handled himself against the infected, and he was easily accepted into the community. He still found himself ill at ease with the children, five in all, but his duties mostly kept him out of their way, except at mealtimes. Even then, most of the kids avoided him, but he liked to sit and chat with Olivia, and that meant putting up with Lucy too. The four-year-old seemed to have a bit of a hero-worship thing going for Auntie Ellie, who lived in the mountains by herself and had her very own horse, and Joel was a celebrity by proxy, just by virtue of knowing her.
Olivia and Ellie had come to the Chisos together, it turned out, although Olivia flatly refused to talk about where they’d been before they came here, and was vague on why Ellie had left again and struck out on her own. Joel wondered if it had something to do with Esteban’s zero-tolerance policy, but it seemed like everyone here knew Ellie was infected while she was living here, and no one except Casey had anything bad to say about her. Ellie seemed to have been an exception to Esteban’s rule.
He’d been there a month already the night that Lucy just walked up to him during dinner and climbed into his lap, saying in her childish lisp, “Tell me more about Ellie and Louise. Do they sleep in the cave together?”
Joel looked down at the little girl, momentarily at a loss. Olivia noticed his discomfort, and said, “Lucy, sweetheart, let’s not bother Joel…”
“No, it’s okay.” He surprised himself when he said it. Gingerly, he readjusted Lucy into a more comfortable position, trying not to think about how many times he’d held Sarah like this when she was little. “You want a story about Ellie and Louise?”
The four-year-old nodded solemnly and popped her thumb in her mouth, a gesture so like Sarah’s at that age that Joel’s mind howled at him. He kept his body steady and his face and voice calm. “You’re gonna have to do me one little favor, though, junebug.” He put his hand on hers and gently removed her thumb from her mouth. “No sucking your thumb while I tell a story.”
Lucy stuck out her lower lip. “Why?”
Oh, the neverending whys. He’d almost forgotten that. His eyes flicked to Olivia, who was watching him as avidly as her daughter was, and he decided to be honest, at least as much as he could be. “Because it reminds me of someone I used to know, and that makes me sad.”
Instead of asking why again, or worse, who, Lucy reached up with her tiny hand, still slightly damp from her mouth, and patted his cheek. “Okay,” she said. “Don’t be sad.”
She settled back down onto his lap, which gave Joel a chance to swallow the lump in his throat before he said, “Ellie and Louise, huh? You sure you don’t want a story about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? I think I remember how that one goes.”
Lucy twisted around to look at him in dismay. “No, Joel! I want Auntie Ellie!” Her green eyes filled with tears.
“Easy now, kiddo, I was only teasin’, sorry. Settle down.” He took a deep breath while she got comfortable again, and then said, “Well, did you know that your auntie saved my life?”
“It’s true. I’d run out of water, and my horse died…”
“What was your horse’s name?”
“Uh…” Joel had never bothered naming his horse, but it seemed important to Lucy, so he made one up on the spot. “Screwball. So I…”
She giggled. “Screwball? That’s funny.”
Joel arranged his face in a ferocious frown. “You wanna hear this story or not?”
“Yes.” She giggled again. “Screwball.”
Despite himself, Joel found himself smiling. Lucy’s laughter was infectious. “All right, then. Stop interruptin’. Anyway, your Auntie Ellie found me and took me back to her cave, and gave me some water. After she tied me up, of course.” Lucy’s eyes went wide, but she kept her mouth clamped shut. “Well, I was a stranger back then. She was only bein’ careful. She untied me after I convinced her I was okay. But then she had to go huntin’ for food. Ellie is real good with a bow, she does most of her huntin’ with one, which is good because it’s quieter than a gun.”
Lucy looked at Olivia and said, “Mama, I want to shoot a bow.”
Olivia was taken aback. “Maybe when you’re a little older, peanut.”
Joel could tell by the stubborn set of Lucy’s jaw that Olivia hadn’t heard the last of the bow conversation, and he was a little sorry for instigating it. “Anyway, I was still hurt, so I waited while Ellie and Louise went huntin’. This next part is what Ellie told me. She and Louise rode up and down for hours, and didn’t see anything worth shootin’. So Ellie said to Louise, ‘Girl, we’ll just have to go a little further than we usually do, if that’s okay with you.’”
“What did Louise say?”
“Louise...she’s a horse, junebug. Horses don’t talk, you know that.”
Lucy’s eyes turned stormy and she frowned. “Louise talks to Ellie. I know it.”
Joel gave in. “Okay. Louise said, uh, ‘It’s awful hot out here, Ellie. I’d rather go on home.’” He tried doing a dopey voice for Louise.
Lucy glared at him. “Louise doesn’t talk like that. Just talk normal.”
“Yes, ma’am. You’re all kinds of bossy, ain’t you? Where was I?”
“Louise wanted to go home,” she prompted.
“Right. But Ellie told her ‘No, I’m going to be too hungry tonight if we go home. We have to find some food.’ So they kept going, further than ever, and that’s when Ellie saw the javelina tracks. A javelina’s a kind of a…”
“I know what a javelina is. I’m not a baby.”
Joel raised his eyebrows at Olivia, who grinned and shrugged. “Well. Ellie climbed down off Louise and crept forward as quiet as you like, followin’ those tracks, and she finally came across a whole group of ‘em, coolin’ off in a waller, gettin’ all muddy. So she lines up her shot, cool as you please, and lets loose, and she gets her the plumpest, tenderist javelina in the group.”
Lucy clapped her hands.
“But then, somethin’ scary happened. She was walkin’ over to pick up her javelina, when a shot rang out and a slug hit her in the arm! Ellie ran for cover…”
Lucy gasped. “What about Louise?”
“Aw, Louise was all right. She was a ways away, waitin’ for Ellie to finish huntin’, so she was never in no danger. Anyway, Ellie runs for cover, and this bandit, who’d been hidden, runs out after her, tryin’ to kill her! Only, he don’t know how good Ellie is with a bow, or how fast she is, so it comes as a surprise when she turns around and buries an arrow right in his throat.” Joel smiled fiercely, but when he caught Olivia’s horrified stare, his smile faded. This may not have been the appropriate story to choose to tell a four-year-old. In his defense, he was out of practice.
Lucy didn’t seem to mind. She was doing a little dance on his lap and chanting, “Yes, yes, yes! Auntie Ellie is the best!” She turned to him, her eyes shining, and said, “What happened next?”
“Ah…” Joel looked uncomfortably at Olivia, who had buried her head in her hands in a classic parent’s “Lord give me strength” pose. “Well, not much left to tell. She brought that javelina back to the cave, and I stitched up her shoulder and cooked the javelina for supper. It was delicious. Uh, the end.”
Joel went to push Lucy off his lap, but she flung her arms around his neck and said, “No! Can I have another story?”
“Not tonight,” Olivia said firmly. “It’s time for bed.”
“Bed. And thank Joel for the story.”
Lucy gave Joel a wet smack on the cheek. “Thanks, Joel. You can tell me another one tomorrow.” She slid off his lap.
“G’night,” he said faintly.
Olivia kissed the top of her head. “Run along back to the cottage and get your jammies on. I’ll be right behind you.” Lucy ran for the door, and Olivia skewered Joel with her eyes, eyebrows raised.
“Uh, sorry about that,” he said. “I wasn’t thinkin’...”
Olivia waved her hand. “The story? Believe me, she’s heard worse. We can’t protect kids from stuff like that, Joel, not any more. Not if we want them to survive. No...I was more surprised when you said that you stitched Ellie up. You knew she was infected?”
Joel shrugged. “I was careful. Besides, she was makin’ a mess of it herself.”
Olivia stared at him until Joel shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “You’re...full of surprises, Joel. So why did you leave? I just assumed all this time it was because you found out she was infected.”
He shook his head. “No, I found that out pretty early on. Fact, I think that’s why she let me stay in the first place. But then I…” What? What could he tell Olivia? He didn’t understand what had happened himself. “I guess she decided she’d rather be alone,” he finally said. “‘Scuse me.” He pushed his chair back from the table, carried his plate into the kitchen to wash it, and left without another word, heading back to the motel room he called home these days.
Tommy’s birthday, November 15th, came and went with no one to mark its significance but Joel. He wondered how many other unmarked graves dotted the country, and how many were for people with no one left to mourn their passing. He was still in a dark mood a week later, when he pulled solo hunting duty in the bottom of the valley for the week, which suited him fine. He preferred to be alone when he felt like this, when the past was harder to keep at bay.
The trail down the valley was steep and Joel was alone, so he was especially careful about where he was putting his feet. It would take him ages to haul himself back up to the lodge with a busted ankle. Today he was collecting small game, which meant he was carrying a .22 rifle and checking the rabbit snares he’d laid down the day before.
Joel liked hunting alone. It was different than traveling alone on the deteriorating highways of a dying civilization; out here, where the hand of man had never penetrated very deeply, it was almost like the outbreak had never happened, and hunting kept his mind busy so his thoughts didn’t stray too much to Tommy or Sarah. Or Ellie.
It had been a productive day. He had five fat rabbits and eight ground squirrels tucked into his backpack, a welcome contribution to the kitchen, but instead of starting back he’d decided to follow the trail down to its terminus for the first time. He was on a trail that was marked “The Window” in the park guides, and it dipped down into the heart of the valley before meeting up with the creek that drained out of the basin through a narrow notch in the enclosing ridges. The last time Joel had hunted down here, Casey had given him a huge ration of shit for not going all the way to the end of the trail to see the Window itself, and since the weather was crisp and pleasant today, at least for late November, Joel had decided to take in the view for himself.
He was watching his footing on the treacherous slickrock canyon of the creekbed, so he was almost on top of the Window before he looked up and actually saw it: a deep, V-shaped notch in the mountain, maybe five feet across at the height of his shoulders. He stepped as close to the edge as he could get on the wet rock, worn smooth over millions of years as the water that collected in the basin succumbed to gravity and sought the desert floor below.
At the edge, the water tumbled down the near-vertical rock face to the Chihuahuan Desert, five thousand feet below, and the sides of the Window framed a panoramic view so stunning that Joel’s breath caught in his throat. Sarah would have loved this, he thought. Always meant to take her here. Joel clenched his fists. Down here, alone, miles away from anyone, he could finally allow himself to feel, and as always, the deep well of grief and regret he carried from Sarah’s loss was the first thing that rose to the surface. I’m sorry I spent so much time at work, baby girl. I thought I was making a better life for you, but I just missed so damn much.
He unpacked his memories of Sarah reverently, like he was opening a treasure box. He smiled as he remembered their camping trip to Lost Maples, when Sarah had made them both crowns out of fallen maple leaves and they’d worn them all day, even into the burger joint they’d visited for dinner. The other diners had given them the side-eye like crazy, but he hadn’t cared. His little girl was happy, and that was the only important thing in the world.
God, he missed her.
He stood there for a long time as the shadows lengthened, watching the sun start to set over the desert, the only sound the chuckle of water echoing against the canyon walls.
He almost had a heart attack when he turned around to start his steep climb back up to the lodge and saw Ellie standing there watching him, not fifteen feet away.
“Jesus Christ, Ellie!”
She smiled and gave him an uncertain wave. “Hi.”
Joel’s heart was still pounding. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
She shrugged. “Olivia said you were down here. I thought you might want company on the way back up.”
“I…no, I meant, what are you doing here, in the Chisos?” Joel was having trouble marshalling his thoughts. Over the months since he’d left her, Ellie had never been far from his mind, and just turning around and finding her standing there made him feel a little like he was hallucinating again, or losing his mind.
“Oh, I come down a couple times a year to see...everybody, and trade. Stuff like that. Nobody told you?”
Joel felt a stab of anger, and he held onto it, tight. Anger was safe. “No. It ain’t like that note you left me was heavy on the details.”
She looked down guiltily. “Yeah, I know. Sorry. I, uh...I was in kind of a bad space.”
What the hell happened? Now that Ellie was finally here in front of him, the question that had been burning a hole in his mind ever since their last night together could finally be answered, but he didn’t ask it. Instead, he turned his back on her and looked out through the Window over the darkening desert again, burying his hurt under a thick shell of anger.
He didn’t move or look at her when she joined him at his side a few minutes later, just kept his face impassive and hard until she sighed.
“So, what do you think of this place? I loved it here. I hoped you’d like it too.”
She was standing close enough that Joel could feel the heat of her body through the sleeve of his shirt. She held her hands loosely at her sides, and it would require only the tiniest movement on his part to bridge the gap between their fingers and curl his hand around hers. He clenched his hands into fists. What the hell did she want from him? Her presence at his side confused him to no end. “It’s growin’ on me. You can’t deny that view, though.”
She gave a short laugh that was more a hard exhale from her nostrils than a laugh, her lips twisted into the barest of smiles. They stood there together in silence and watched the sun slip down below the horizon, until the gray twilight blurred the line between the earth and the sky.
Joel turned and started back up the path, clicking his flashlight on to see his footing better. Ellie easily kept pace with him.
Why did you make me go? The question beat in his head like a fist. He crossed the creekbed and turned back to her, offering his hand. “Here, those rocks are slippery.”
“Pssh,” she said, by way of refusal, but her voice was more playful than scornful. “Besides, if you touch me, Esteban will throw you into quarantine.”
“Yeah?” he said, surprised, although he supposed it made sense. “Speaking of which, why aren’t you in quarantine? Didn’t you just get here from outside?”
She laughed. “What would be the point? Everyone already knows I’m infected. It’s the rest of you he needs to worry about.” Her voice was light, but Joel could hear an undercurrent of pain there, and that more than anything finally made him let go of the anger he’d been holding on to.
He didn’t ask the question he wanted to ask. Instead, he said, “Why’d you leave here in the first place, if you liked it so much?”
She shook her head. “I already told you. I got sick of worrying I was going to infect someone. And...I got tired of seeing that look in people’s eyes. The ones who know...they’re afraid of me, Joel.”
“I wasn’t,” he said quietly. I’m not.
The path was wide enough for them to walk side by side, but it was several long moments before she answered him. “No, you weren’t.”
“Olivia’s not afraid of you either. I get the feeling you two go way back, right? And Lucy can’t get enough of stories about you.”
“Lucy asks about me?” It was too dark for him to really see her face, but he could hear the pleasure in the question, as well as a strange hitch in her voice that he couldn’t identify.
“That kid thinks you’re Wonder Woman, and she thinks I’m the most interesting man in the whole damn world, just because I spent time with you. Yeah, she asks about you all the time.” Joel didn’t notice she was no longer keeping pace with him until her heard her shuddering indrawn breath behind him.
He turned around, and she raised her hand to cover her face when his flashlight shone in her eyes, but not before he saw the tears gleaming on her cheeks. Joel was beside her before he even realized he’d moved, not touching her, but close enough to let her know he was there for her. “What is it?”
She ran the back of one shaking hand across her eyes. “You shone your fucking light in my eyes, and they teared up, that’s all.”
“Bullshit.” Joel reached out for her hand, but she flinched away.
“What Esteban don’t know won’t hurt him.” Joel reached for her face instead, cupping his large, rough hand around the delicate line of her jaw. Warring emotions rippled across her face until she closed her eyes and leaned her cheek into his hand.
“Joel…” she whispered.
“Ellie, why’d you make me go?” The question slipped out before he knew he was going to ask it. “If I said or did anything to make you…”
“I didn’t want you to go. And that’s why you had to.” Her voice was so low he could barely hear it.
“That don’t make any kind of sense,” he growled.
“It does if you’re me, Joel!” She moved away from him, and for a second his fingers hung suspended in the air, reaching for her, until he lowered his hand again.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like, knowing you can kill the people you love, if you’re even just a little bit careless? Fuck, that night you sewed up my arm, if I’d moved a little...if you’d scratched yourself with that needle, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. I couldn’t live with that.” She stood with her arms wrapped around herself, her face tense and unhappy.
“So you just make the decision to send me away. Without even talkin’ to me about it.” Joel was angry again.
“I sent you here, Joel. It’s a good place. I wanted to protect you.” Her face was a mask of misery, and her eyes were pleading with him to understand.
He shook his head. “No. I thought it was worth it, to stay with you. I knew about you, and I was willin’ to accept the risk because I still wanted to stay, damn it. You took that choice away from me. What the hell gives you the right?”
She spread her hands in front of her, like she was trying to ward off his words. “It was too dangerous…”
“Fuck that. You know what I think, Ellie? You got a serious martyr complex. You act like you’re making some kind of noble sacrifice, but I think you’d just rather be alone than admit you have any feelings for anybody.”
She gasped like he’d struck her, and then her jaw hardened. “You have no idea what sacrifice is.” She pushed past him and hurried up the path as fast as she could go.
“The hell I don’t!” he yelled after her. “What, you’re gonna run off again?”
“Fuck off, Joel. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“So tell me! Ellie!”
She didn’t slow down or turn around, just ran up the path like her life depended on getting away from him. Joel watched until she disappeared from sight, and then with a heavy sigh he started back up the path too, muttering to himself, “Well, that probably could’ve gone better.”
By the time he made it back up to the lodge, she was nowhere to be seen, so he dropped his catch off at the kitchen and headed back to the motel room he called home. For some reason, he didn’t feel very hungry.